RA and Your Heart: Tips for Healthy Living
Heart health is a high priority when you have rheumatoid arthritis. RA increases your risk of heart and blood vessels disease, also known as cardiovascular disease (CVD).
CVD includes atherosclerosis, where plaque slowly builds up inside the walls of your arteries. Over time, this can make it much harder for your blood to flow, and you may even develop blood clots. These clots can block the flow of blood to your heart, brain and other vital organs, leading to a stroke or heart attack.
Why does RA raise your CVD risk? Inflammation in RA doesn’t just attack your joints, it can affect your heart, too. Inflammation can damage tissue in your blood vessels and impede blood flow, causing blood pressure to rise. Your risk of developing CVD because you have RA is about the same as it is for people with type-2 diabetes.¹ About half of premature deaths in RA are related to heart disease.²
Most people with RA are unaware of their increased CVD risk. People with RA who have key risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure or use of certain anti-inflammatory drugs, including corticosteroids (like prednisone) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), often don’t know that they’re at an increased risk for a heart attack, heart failure or stroke.³
Stress can also increase your risk of CVD. Excess stress can contribute to high blood pressure. Just having RA can be stressful, as you know all too well. You may be worried that a flare will keep you out of work. You may stress over keeping up with your medications, doctor’s appointments and bills. You may feel guilty about depending on your loved ones to help you out with tasks when you’re not feeling well.
If you’re stressed out a lot, you may be more likely to do things that can be bad for your heart: overeating and gaining weight, smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol. Obesity, smoking and drinking to excess can all contribute to higher blood pressure, which can wear down artery tissue and lead to heart disease.
What’s the good news? Your CVD risk factors are things you can control, manage and even change. You can take steps to improve your heart health and lower your CVD risk with RA. Here are a few tips:
Talk with your rheumatologist or primary care provider about your CVD risk factors. At your next appointment, ask about your heart health. Go over your individual risk factors, like your blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, and physical activity, and talk about lifestyle changes or medications, such as statins to lower cholesterol, that may help you decrease your risk for CVD.
Keep tabs on your RA. High RA disease activity can mean that your inflammation is not under control. Keep track of your inflammation with Vectra® at your rheumatology appointments. Track your symptoms and Vectra scores anytime on the myVectra app or through the web portal, at my.Vectrascore.com. Review your scores with your rheumatologist and together you can assess if your treatment plan is working.
Adopt some heart-healthy habits:
- Move more each day. Take a walk, hit the stationary bike at the gym, play a round of golf or go for a swim. Set a goal of 75-150 minutes of heart-revving activity each week.
- Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke. Get help quitting if you smoke. If someone in your family smokes, ask them to smoke elsewhere or, better yet, encourage them to quit.
- Eat a healthy diet. Eat whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, and lean proteins like fish or white meats. Enjoy vegetable sources of protein, like beans or tofu. Check your diet for trans fats, fats usually found in processed and packaged foods or margarine, which can increase heart attack or stroke risk.
- Keep stress in check. Find healthy ways to manage stress. Exercise is a healthy way to let off steam. Take a stress management class if you think you need professional help to control your tension or anxiety levels.
It’s OK to lean on loved ones for support. Everyone with RA needs a good support network to manage stress and the ongoing challenges of living with RA. Cherish your relationships with all of your loved ones, says Steve Pritikin, one of the Vectra Patient Ambassadors. “Having RA can be trying for anyone around us, including loved ones and caretakers. I am so glad to have my wife support my ‘life with RA,’” says Steve, whose wife joined him at one of his first rheumatology appointments after he was diagnosed. He says many of his friends and family members didn’t understand why he complained of pain or fatigue when he didn’t look ill. “I had the doctor explain to her what RA is and does. She has become my biggest supporter. Having an understanding of autoimmune disease and RA has encouraged her to research on the internet about this subject over the years, and she has become my joy and comfort.”
- Peters MJL, van Halm VP, Voskuyl AE, et al. “Does rheumatoid arthritis equal diabetes mellitus as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease? A prospective study. Arthritis Care Res. 2009 Nov 15;61(11):1571-1579.
- Symmons DPM and Gabriel SE. “Epidemiology of CVD in rheumatic disease, with a focus on RA and SLE.” Nat Rev Rheumatol. 2011 May 31;7:399-408.
- Ghosh-Swaby OR and Kuriya B. “Awareness and perceived risk of cardiovascular disease among individuals living with rheumatoid arthritis is low: results of a systematic literature review. Arthritis Res Ther. 2019 Jan 22;21(1):33.